Is it possible that GOP primary voters are so ambivalent about former Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential bid that they might turn instead to a thrice-married former lawmaker – one who has a penchant for bestowing extravagant gifts on his wife during a time of economic malaise?
A new CBS poll suggests that some Republicans are at least flirting with the idea.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is experiencing a mini-surge in November – an apparent sign that voters are sampling the wider field as their affections for some alternatives to Mr. Romney, particularly businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, begin to diminish. The new national CBS survey of Republican primary voters shows Mr. Cain at 18 percent, a modest advantage over Romney and Mr. Gingrich, who are tied at 15 percent.
Gingrich is the only one of the trio to see an uptick in certain pockets of his numbers since October.
“Any port in a storm,” says Ross Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “With Romney distasteful, Cain unelectable, Perry mortally wounded, where can Republicans turn? To the man whose scandals are years old and who has resurrected himself as a kind of elder statesman.
He adds, “If his solipsism doesn’t get in the way, he may be a strong candidate.”
The CBS poll, conducted in the field Nov. 6-10, shows that Mr. Cain, mired in sexual harassment allegations, has lost support among women since October: Then, 28 percent backed the former Godfather’s Pizza chief, but now, 15 percent support him. Romney, meanwhile, has seen his backing with men erode, but Gingrich has received an eight-point bump among them.
It’s worth nothing that the survey found that 14 percent of GOP voters said they’ll support “someone else” – in other words, not one of the 10 candidates campaigning for the nomination. Governor Perry, whose stumble in this week’s CNBC debate has been deemed a serious blow to his presidential hopes, is at 8 percent. The rest of the field registers at or below 5 percent.
So is the Gingrich bump real, a shift that should cause worry in the Romney camp, or is it an illusion, the latest temporary sign of uncertainty about the inevitable nominee? Both, political experts say.
Gingrich is a formidable thinker, able to communicate his ideas and chart national history with a clarity that eludes many in the field. Humility is not a Gingrich strong suit, however. To the appeal of some and dislike of others, he is a combative debater – as evidenced Wednesday night when he dismissed as frivolous co-moderator Maria Bartiromo’s request for him to sum up his health-care plans in a sound bite.
“To say in 30 seconds what you would do with 18 percent of the economy, life and death for the American people, a topic I’ve worked on since 1974, about which I wrote [a book] called ‘Saving Lives & Saving Money’ in 2002, and for which I founded the Center for Health Transformation, is the perfect case of why I’m going to challenge the president to seven Lincoln-Douglas-style three-hour debates with a timekeeper and no moderator,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich’s feisty debate performances might appeal to primary voters and GOP activists, but “every time Gingrich opens his mouth, he tries to prove that he’s smarter and better than everyone listening,” says Washington-based Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee. “That shtick will wear pretty thin with independent voters.”
Additionally, Gingrich as a nominee could be pitched by Democrats as throwback to the failed economic policies of the past, he says.
“His Contract With America was the blueprint for the Bush economic policies that led to the economic crisis,” Mr. Elleithee says. “And he's been pretty clear that he wants to take us back. That alone will disqualify him with many voters.”
Meanwhile, Gingrich, as Professor Baker mentioned, is beset by a series of personal shortcomings that could dog him in a general election. He has admitted to an affair with his third wife, Callista, while he was married to his second wife. A Southern Baptist for decades, he recently converted to Catholicism – a move that some saw as preparation for his 2012 campaign. And with many Americans struggling to make ends meet, Gingrich has had to explain why he’s kept a revolving credit line of hundreds of thousands of dollars at the high-end retailer Tiffany & Co.
Still, Gingrich has raised $1.2 million in October, the Associated Press reported Friday – more than his July, August, and September totals combined. It’s not necessarily enough to compete with Romney’s war chest, but it’s an indication that some interest is percolating among voters.
Moreover Gingrich, who is more comfortable on the lecture circuit than with the grip-and-greet requirements of retail politicking in early caucus and primary states, is opening headquarters – finally, some say – in New Hampshire on Friday, South Carolina on Saturday, and soon in Iowa, which he’ll visit next week.
Too late? Too much baggage? Maybe, but Gingrich senses momentum.
“This summer we came close to not surviving,” Gingrich said on Fox News this week, according to AP. “So I think there was a period there when it was reasonable to wonder what was going on. We are methodically doing better and better.”